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Sleeping with the lights on

BY John Nilo

{UI/UX Designer}

15 May 2017

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Clowns, long haired women dressed all in white, children, old people, Jaimie Lee Curtis; to some degree, all have been the cause for shivers to run down my spine at one time. From an era of watching VHS rentals to the more recent age of high definition spook fests; horror has been a much loved and hated genre that I continue to return to.
Sitting in a dark cinema, back pressed hard against the seat in a meek attempt to escape what was happening on the giant screen, less enthusiastic movie-going friends may have a hard time understanding the appeal. Stress levels rise, heart rate increases, and sweat glands engage, with behavioural researchers also sharing this puzzlement giving rise to the term the “horror paradox” as the appeal in itself does not seem logical.

Cue a few educators to shine a light on the matter as this subject has been discussed and theorised at length over the years.

Dr. Glenn Walters, Journal of Media Psychology 2004 – theorised 3 primary factors that suggest as to why horror films are alluring.

  • Tension (generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock, and gore)
  • Relevance (personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death)
  • Unrealism (detachment from what we perceive as a reality)

This argument is supported by a number of psychological studies conducted; one research piece conducted by McCauley, and Rozin (1994) on ‘disgust’. The study exposed college students to 3 documentary films depicting real life horror scenarios. Out of all the student, only 10% of the participants watched all 3 films in their entirety, 90% retiring early, with the majority of the 10% finding the content disturbing. Yet a great number of these participants would think nothing of purchasing a ticket to the latest slasher film containing significantly more gore and depravity. The conclusion McCauley came up with was the fictitious nature of horror films affords viewers a sense of control by placing a psychological distance between them and what they are witnessing on a cinema or television screen. Once the credits role and lights flicker back on, they would find themselves safe in their seats.

Glen Sparks, a professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, suggests a reason for the appeal is how you feel after the experience, calling this the ‘excitation transfer process’. His research states that psychological arousal lingers, proving to intensify positive emotions for a period of time after the film. Instead of focusing on the film itself, it’s the positive experiences associated with the film that can draw people to keep coming back for more (like laughing with friends about the film afterwards over a coffee). The other side of the coin is that any negative emotions occurring shortly after the film are also heightened, which could serve to be a turn-off for some.

Sparks also suggest that some people are simply wired to enjoy high levels of psychological arousal, while others have difficulty screening unwanted stimuli in their environment.

Whilst I can certainly identify with McCauley and Spark’s theories, escapism through complete immersion is the key reason as to why I continue to shell out dollars for the latest film in the genre. Unfortunately, however, my opinion is that quality horror films are far and few between so the engrossing experience I look forward to is usually a miss. The challenge of having an audience become emotionally invested in characters and then have them go through believable horrific scenarios whilst maintaining a successful tone of suspense and dread throughout the film is a difficult art to master.

With every admission ticket, hopes are high of encountering the same spine-tingling adrenaline rush through the experience of dread and fear, served up in a compelling tale that is so foreign from my day to day. Complimented with an oversized box of popcorn and a giant cup of frozen onset diabetes; I know it sounds depraved but it’s harmless entertainment.

At the very least I’ve educated myself on survival tactics in the event of a zombie apocalypse, as well as adopting environmentally friendly, power saving light globes for those nights that the lights best stay on.

After writing this, I will mention that I had the distinct displeasure of testing my mettle by taking the horror experience to a new level whilst recently travelling through Japan; but that’s another story.

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